By David Hennessy
Although he may be known for his dark and chilling roles such as Combo in This is England or Al Capone in the television hit Boardwalk Empire, the real Stephen Graham couldn’t be further away from any of the nasty characters he has taken on. Approachable, friendly and courteous, when meeting him The Irish World is struck by how down to earth he is despite his star status both at home and in Hollywood.
Many would have first seen Stephen when he played Jason Statham’s boxing promoting partner Tommy in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch. Since then, he has acted for Shane Meadows in This is England and its television spin-offs, for Steven Spielberg in Band of Brothers and for Martin Scorsese, first in Gangs of New York and then in his prohibition era gangster series.
Soon, Stephen will be seen in Sky’s series of one-off dramas Playhouse Presents which boasts an all-star line-up that includes Anna Friel, Jack Whitehall, Suranne Jones and Kylie Minogue. Entitled The Call Out, Stephen plays a police officer on the beat. When called to an apartment block, Stephen’s character and his partner encounter some lonely souls that have simply been forgotten and starved of attention are reaching out to the men in uniform.
What was it about the short drama that appealed to Stephen? “I just thought the script was lovely. I think it’s just nice to be able to tell a story. It’s such a beautiful idea: These people live in this block and obviously they never spend any time getting to know each other or anything. They don’t greet each other in the morning or ask how the other is and they seem to be very lonely people. It’s that kind of isolation, unlike the old days where there was very much a sense of community: You always look after people, carry an old person’s bags and let them sit down on a bus, you had that kind of respect whereas today London can be a cold lonely place if you don’t know many people.
“I remember when I was a student, we had an old Jamaican lad live next door. There was seven lads lived there, we used to do his shopping for him and all that and make sure he was alright in the winter, fix his heating and all that. You wouldn’t really think that these seven lads would bother paying any attention to the old fella next door but we did and I suppose that’s the way we were brought up, we were brought up with respect and to look after people.”
The Call Out is directed by Carlo Nero and Stephen was acting opposite the director’s mother, Vanessa Redgrave. What was it like to work with such a screen icon? “It was an absolute honour and such a privilege. She was brilliant and I like the way she called the shots once or twice. She took no s**t off no one. It was like: ‘Whoah, hang on hang on, we won’t shoot the f**king tea set for three hours and then turn around and give us two takes, we’ll do that and then we’ll give us the chance to do what we do properly…’’Which is lovely and very refreshing and I’m gonna take that away with me because I’ve always sat there and thought: ‘F**king hell, just spent four hours shooting the angles of the table and when we get into our stuff, it’s like two minutes’. I’ll definitely take that from my meeting with Vanessa: To let them know what I think is right.”
Along with Stephen, Idris Elba (The Wire) and David Harewood (Homeland) are two more familiar faces on US television that have come home to take part in Playhouse Presents. Is this an indication that British television is not second place to America anymore? “I love doing drama at home. A few people have said to me: ‘How come you still do stuff over here?’ Because I love it. It’s a very interesting time to be a part of these British stories that are being told and it’s great fun to do. This is where I learned my craft and this is where I do most of my work. I’m very blessed to be a part of Boardwalk and I can fly out there and do some stuff for a week and a half and then fly home and spend it with the missus and the kids. I’m very fortunate to be in that position.”
Would Stephen consider relocating to America now he is doing so much work there? “No, I live in a lovely little village. I walk the kids to school. I’ve done talks in the school, I even went into the local nursery and read a story to the kids so it’s nice to be a part of that community. I’m very much family orientated, it’s very important to me. I just couldn’t see myself living in New York or Los Angeles really. I Iove going there to work and please more work come my way but I just couldn’t see myself living there.”
Away from work, Stephen likes to stay away from cameras. You wouldn’t catch him going on Celebrity Come Dine with Me or Celebrity Big Brother: “No way, never. It’s not for me, all that celebrity dancing on this and dancing on that and come watch me do this and watch me do that, not really for me. Who wants to watch a load of t**sers sit around a table and eat their dinner? I would rather see a great story be told which is why it’s great to be part of something like what Sky Art are doing. They’re giving people an opportunity, we’ve got a platform to tell great stories, be great story tellers and make these productions.”
Stephen is now shooting the fourth series of Boardwalk Empire. Was it at all daunting for the Merseyside actor to play a notorious figure like Al Capone? “I suppose it was at first. Now I just really enjoy playing it and I think the way we’ve developed the character throughout the series has been fantastic. We’ve got to show Al Capone with a heart and with a soul.
“Last season especially I loved the way his little boy was being bullied in school and I had this lovely scene with one of the kids, because its triplets that play my son to work around TV hours. I loved the way I had this beautiful moment with my little boy: Telling him about taking care of himself and standing up for himself and then I went and beat a man to death in the bar. Then I come back home and sing my son a lullaby and put him to sleep. I just love playing them kind of characters with that dichotomy and trying to find out what makes a person go out and kill someone and then come home and make sure their little boy’s all tucked up, let him know that he’s taken care of with the blood of the other man across his knuckles. It’s great because they’re not quite wired properly, those people. They’re very exciting to play.”
For the full interview, see the April 27 edition of The Irish World